Multibillion-dollar plans to upgrade and expand train network

The long and proud tradition that saw Egypt establish the first railway in Africa – running roughly 200 km from Alexandria to Cairo – in the mid-19th century continues as part of Egypt’s economic renaissance with multibillion-dollar projects ranging from high-speed links said to be capable of travelling at 350-km per hour (kph) to new carriages and safety devices. The network of over 9000 km is operated by the state-owned Egyptian National Railways (ENR).

A 1087-km high-speed corridor is planned from Alexandria to Aswan using a two-tier track. On the lower level railway a 180-kph train would stop at all the major cities on the route. Above it would sit lines for the 350-kph services, servicing five stations only – Alexandria, Giza (for the Cairo area), Assiut, Luxor and Aswan. Provisional costing of €7.3bn has been announced, although there are many stages of the request for proposal (RFP) that need completion before any construction work can begin. These are reported to include demand forecasting, travel market analysis and financial modelling for the project. After that the project will move to compilation of a detailed action plan covering the technical, financial, legal and environmental aspects.

In Three Stages

The RFP envisages three stages of construction, Alexandria-Cairo (five years and costing $3.5bn), Cairo-Luxor (eight years, not yet costed) and Luxor-Aswan (five years, not yet costed), with perhaps an onward link to Hurghada later.

Ibrahim El Demeiry, the former minister of transport, announced that the 220 km of phase one from Alexandria to Giza would cost LE18.32bn ($2.6bn) and take three years. He told reporters the line would carry 50m passengers a year.

El Demeiry confirmed that the Ministry of Defence played a role in selecting the path of the train line from Alexandria to Aswan, a process that is common in many countries for determining rail and road routes. Infrastructure works are moving ahead so quickly that sometimes announcements are made before all final costs have been nailed down, leading to some discrepancies.

Modernisation & new Links

More immediate upgrades to the link between Alexandria and the capital will follow a €126m loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to help fund the purchase of new rolling stock for the line. According to an announcement in the Railway Bulletin in July 2014, the extra carriages will reduce overcrowding on the trains themselves while simultaneously cutting road congestion because more people would be attracted to the railways.

Philip ter Woort, the Egypt director at the EBRD, told Daily News Egypt that the loan would finance six new trains under a pioneering “supply and maintenance” structure, where the supplier of the trains remains responsible for the maintenance over a specified minimum period. “In addition, the new trains are expected to provide higher energy efficiencies which will benefit the Egyptian people,” he said, adding, “An important support component of this loan is to help ENR to improve its corporate governance standards. So the loan will not only support the purchase of new railway wagons, but will also to improve the transparency of Egyptian railways.”

Other rail lines being proposed by the Ministry of Transport (MoT) include a passenger and freight link between the residential and industrial areas of the 10th of Ramadan City to Cairo’s Ain Shams, at a cost of $700m. One further project planned is a new Luxor-Hurghada line that originates in Luxor City and reaches Qena-Safaga. The cost for this new line has not yet been determined.

Passanger Growth

A report issued by the Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), a body that acts as a think tank for the Cabinet, showed that in August 2014 the number of railway passengers was 15.4m, an increase of 52.5% compared with the 10.1m recorded for the same month the previous year. Rashad Abdel Aty, deputy head of the Egyptian Railway Authority (ERA), said, “We are witnessing a big demand for railway transportation at present.” Abdel Aty said the ERA had operated 97.7% of trains in Upper Egypt and 100% of trains on coastal lines in August. The extra passengers inevitably provided a boost to revenues, which went up by 124.1% to LE85.6m ($12.2m). There was no explanation of why the revenues rose by a much bigger percentage than the number of passengers. It may be down to the fact that Egypt has a category of passengers who travel free of charge and the extra travellers in August mostly paid for their tickets.

Freight revenues also saw a dramatic rise in August 2014, almost tripling from 2013’s LE6.4m ($908,800) for the month to LE18.8m ($2.7m), according to the IDSC report. The train boom continued with the MoT providing an extra 28 trains between the end of September and October 13, 2014. The 1000 seats on each train were aimed at relieving the crowds of passengers at train terminals and speeding up journey times, Abdel Aty added.

Another possible source of revenue is the land adjacent to railway tracks, which is owned by the MoT. Abdel Aty said the land near the lines had a width of 192 metres and the ministry had set up a company to exploit its commercial worth. However, there was a snag. Abdel Aty said “a large proportion” of these lands remain under the control of local bodies affiliated with municipalities.

Crossings

Safety and other aspects of railway infrastructure are also being renewed or replaced. Jesus Sanchez Barjaz, the head of Thales operations in Spain, said he is trying to renew a contract signed with the then Egyptian authorities in 2013 to update the railway crossings.

In May 2013 French multinational Thales Group signed a contract during the rule of former President Mohammed Morsi for €109m to update the railway crossings between Cairo and Alexandria. This contract with Thales, which is one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of transport control systems, was intended to last for four years and the updates will help to stabilise the train in addition to increasing its safe operating speed from 140 kph to 160 kph. The adjustments in the railway will also facilitate the construction of the high-speed train.

End Of The Line

As well as establishing a record for giving Africa its first train service, Egypt may well have earned another, less enviable, place in the history of railways. In 1996, the railway authorities opened a link between the Western Desert and the Red Sea. However, sand storms frequently covered the tracks and two years later, in face of high maintenance charges, the service was suspended – but not without leaving a train stranded at Kharga station on the western end of the line. And there it stayed, its isolation emphasised by severe floods – and thieves who stole around 150 km of railway track. Now the train is coming home. According to the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, the MoT has awarded a tender of around $3m to take it to Cairo by road.

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